“A consummate pro. He was no prima donna. He was all right.” – Dabney Coleman on Elvis Presley

The A.V. Club has a juicy terrific interview with Dabney Coleman up that is one of the best things I have read in ages. I will leave a couple of choice excerpts here, but it really must be read in its entirety, so please, go check it out.

Dabney Coleman on Telly Savalas:

By the way, a lot of people don’t realize, but Telly Savalas was about as good as it gets, also. I mean that literally. I remember I saw him years and years after I’d done Kojak as kind of a no-name character. [Laughs.] But I’d made some kind of name for myself, and I saw him in a restaurant one time after he had retired from Kojak, and he said, “Well, Coleman…” Lighting up a cigarette. “They want me to do more Kojak.” This is years after the fact. He says, “What do you think?” I said, “I think you ought to do Macbeth if you want to.” And he kind of paused, and he said, “Thank you.” He knew that I was serious. And I was, by the way. He was a great actor. That guy was one of the few people that could do this stuff just totally at ease. There’s four or five of ’em that have no sense of tension whatsoever in their speech and their body language and that I believe in a heartbeat, and he was one of ’em. Danny Aiello’s another. It’s falling off a log with these guys. Henry Fonda was one of those. Geena Davis is one of those. There’s not many, but they’re around, and Telly was one of ’em. I meant that quite seriously; I think he was quite equipped to play Macbeth.

To say that my heart cracked after reading that is an understatement.

Dabney Coleman on working with Mickey Rourke in Domino:

I remember citing this just the other day, but… you get a compliment from somebody that matters to you every now and then, and I got one from Mickey Rourke, who I think is one of the great actors in the business and has been for years. He gave me a great compliment. I did a scene on a balcony, and it was kind of over my shoulder, down onto him. We came down and we’re just shooting the breeze, and somewhere out of the blue he says, “By the way, I thought that was some pretty good acting up on that balcony.” And I still remember that to this day. Obviously, since I just told you about it. [Laughs.] But I told some friends about it last week, too. It meant a hell of a lot coming from him, because he’s a great actor.

With all of the great tidbits in this interview, I was hoping against hope that he would talk about Trouble With Girls, one of Elvis’ later movies, and a really good one. I wrote about it here. Coleman has this awesome tidbit about Elvis:

I didn’t work much with Elvis [Presley] on that, if at all. I was only there for a couple of weeks, and I don’t think we did any scenes together. But one day, one lunchtime, we played touch football. He had a little entourage, and they had, like, about a six-man team. And I gathered together some crew members, I guess. I was pretty good at touch football. I was All Intramural at the University of Texas three years in a row, ’cause I could catch the hell out of a ball. Anyway, my guys were… not good. So I ended up throwing the ball, tossing the ball, and I never had much of an arm, but I was better than these guys, that’s for goddamned sure. But we lined up, and we played for the lunch period. We beat ’em, and at the end of it, I remember as he passed me, he said [in a vague Elvis impression], “Hey, man, you got a hell of an arm.” [Laughs.] That was it. That’s all he said to me in two weeks. But I’ll take it. Coming from Elvis, that’s kind of classic. But that’s my only Elvis story! I must say, though, that he was always punctual and prepared and congenial. A consummate pro. He was no prima donna. He was all right.

It almost gets boring after a while hearing stories like this from Elvis’ colleagues. “He was nice, polite, professional.” You would be hard pressed to find any evidence to the contrary. As a matter of fact, when anyone says anything about how they didn’t like working with Elvis – their testimony is immediately called into question. It stands out. Like Stella Stevens on Girls! Girls! Girls!. The main response to her ungenerous comments about Elvis from everyone who knew him, even briefly, was, “What the hell was HER problem?”

Dabney Coleman’s generous comments on working with Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in 9 to 5:

The next thing I think of is how great all three of those girls were to me, because they were several steps up the ladder from where I was in my career. All of ’em were well-established. To varying degrees, but all extremely successful already. Almost icons in their fields, if you want to break it down like that. And here’s this guy coming off of Mary Hartman, which is not too shabby. [Laughs.] But it was late-night TV. Anyway, what I’m alluding to is that all three of them went out of their way to make me feel equal. There’s no other way to put it. Status-wise and talent-wise, they all made me feel extremely secure and were very supportive. I worked with Lily a couple of other times, most notably on The Beverly Hillbillies, but on both that and Nine To Five, I remember every now and then, she’d say, “Dabney, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to make it funny. What should I do?” And I’d look at her and just say, “Lily, come on. I’m not gonna say shit, because I have a feeling you might just come up with something that’s gonna be very, very funny. Don’t ever ask me that again, okay?” It was just very cute. Lily Tomlin asking me how to be funny. Unbelievable.

There is also a fantastic anecdote about Steve McQueen, which is quite terrifying if you think about it from Dabney Coleman’s point of view, but his “take” on it is so illuminating.

Please go read the whole thing.

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6 Responses to “A consummate pro. He was no prima donna. He was all right.” – Dabney Coleman on Elvis Presley

  1. Thanks Sheila. That’s an awesome interview. I’m still in mourning over Buffalo Bill!

  2. Dan says:

    That was a great interview. Thanks for pointing out the Steve McQueen bit – I missed ti during my first, rushed-at-lunch read.

    Have you seen the Slate series on Free To Be You And Me’s 40th Anniversary?

  3. sheila says:

    Dan – I did see that! I don’t really like Dan Kois, so I had a hard time with that first essay. But yes, it was very interesting to read the history of that project!!

  4. sheila says:

    I just love how it seems like McQueen may have been dismissive at first – like: “YOU’RE playing the fire chief??” – but then he turned it all around, and took charge, just like the great star that he was. Scary, though!!

  5. Dan says:

    That’s the first piece of Kois I’ve read and I can’t say I had a reaction to the writing either way.

    McQueen tidbits are always fascinating – I can’t help but wonder how his career would have progressed had he lived. A gorgeous wreck like Richard Burton?

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